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LA County Workers Want The COVID-19 Shot Deadline Extended As They Negotiate Exemptions

Person with shirt sleeve pulled up getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
All L.A. County employees must be fully vaccinated by Friday under an order issued by the Board of Supervisors.
(Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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Union representatives for L.A. County’s 102,000 employees say the Friday deadline for their members to be fully vaccinated is “unreasonable” and a “scare tactic.” They want an extension as they negotiate over a range of issues — including a testing option and broader religious and medical exemptions.

SEIU 721, which represents more than 55,000 workers, also wants the county to allow people who are reluctant to get the shot to get regular tests for the virus instead.

The County CEO’s office said in a statement it could not comment on the specifics of the negotiations but said L.A. “will be in full compliance with all federal and state laws.”

While those talks continue, the county is also working to educate its employees about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, CEO Fesia Davenport told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

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The vaccination order — issued by supervisors last month as the delta variant increased the spread of COVID-19 — covers all Los Angeles county employees including sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, social service workers, public works employees and healthcare workers.

Most health care workers, including county doctors and nurses, face a separate Sept. 30 deadline to be fully vaccinated under an order from the California Department of Public Health.

Regarding the union’s call for a testing-only option, “We want it to be near their worksite [and] we want it to be either low cost or no cost,” said SEIU 721 President David Green. “We want to make it easy for people to test who have vaccination hesitancy.”

SEIU 721, which is the county’s largest union, represents probation officers, foster care workers and healthcare workers like nurses and lab technicians. Green estimated 30% of his members are hesitant to get the vaccine.

Struggling To Persuade Firefighters And Cops

Approximately two-thirds of the county’s employees have registered their vaccination status online, Davenport told the supervisors. Of the more than 67,000 who have done so, nearly 59,000, or almost 88%, reported being fully vaccinated, she said. Nearly 6,000, or 9%, said they are not vaccinated.

Green acknowledges the county has the right to impose a vaccine mandate but thinks it’s important to provide testing as an option.

“I think the only way we are going to keep the public safe and our members safe is to keep them involved in the dialogue,” said Green, who says he is encouraging all of his members to get vaccinated.

Public health officials have struggled to persuade vaccine resisters who interact closely with the public, especially firefighters and police. Many seem to be operating on the erroneous idea that the vaccine only provides protection to the individual who gets the shot, rather than understanding that it also prevents them from unknowingly spreading COVID-19 to those around them.

For example, L.A. Fire Capt. Mario Natividad told us, ”Don’t force me to be vaccinated and take away my freedom of choice.” He added that he knows “quite a few members that are just going to let the department terminate them and then sue them for unlawful termination.”

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‘Still In Discussions’ About Religious Exemptions

Representatives of unions and the county have been meeting for weeks to discuss a wide range of issues related to “dozens of pages” of the county’s policy implementing it, according to a statement from the Coalition of County Unions, which represents 14 labor organizations.

Religious exemptions are among the topics on the table.

“What evidence is going to be considered in determining whether somebody gets an exemption or not,” said Blaine Meek, chair of the Coalition of County Unions. “We are still in discussions about evidence.”

While no major religion opposes vaccination, Meek wondered about a scenario in which a local minister or priest says an employee sincerely believes vaccines violate their religious beliefs.

“It’s very uncharted territory,” Green said. “We are having conversations finding that balance to make sure we are keeping people safe but also respecting people’s beliefs.”

The county has not said how many people have applied for religious exemptions. (In the city of L.A., more than one-quarter of LAPD officers have requested such an exemption.) Here is the county form to request a religious exemption.

Unions Want Medical Exemptions Granted For ‘Natural Immunity’

The Coalition of County Unions said in its statement that it wants to expand the categories of medical exemptions to include “scientifically supportable ‘natural immunity’” among people who have already had COVID-19.

Various studies have shot down the idea that a previous infection provides the same amount of protection as a vaccine, in part because the amount of immunity it confers varies greatly by person, and the immunity wanes over time.

“There is a whole mythology around it, which is, ‘I have natural immunity and natural immunity is better than anything a vaccine could give me and it lasts forever,’” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the supervisors Tuesday. “It’s one of the number one reasons people say they don’t want to get vaccinated.”

Here is the county form to request a medical exemption.

In August, the California medical board warned physicians they cannot grant exemptions without conducting an appropriate exam or without a legitimate medical reason for the exemption.

If a doctor is caught issuing exemptions without good reason, they “may be subjecting their license to disciplinary action.”

The medical board has a link on its website for people to file a complaint if they feel a physician is granting exemptions inappropriately.

Anyone who gets a medical or religious exemption will have to get a weekly COVID-19 test under county rules.

How Will Vaccine Resisters Be Disciplined?

Discipline for workers who fail to get a shot is a key issue in the negotiations.

County negotiators presented a “corrective action plan” that begins with a “Notice of Non-Compliance” that would start the clock ticking toward a time after which employees could be disciplined, according to a statement from the Coalition of County Unions. That clock would start even if a worker has received a first shot, and even if they have a pending request for religious or medical accommodation.

“This is obviously completely unreasonable and makes the county’s continued commitment to the Oct. 1 deadline look more and more like a scare tactic rather than a reasonable personnel policy,” the Coalition’s statement said.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in a statement last month that he will avoid disciplining anyone who doesn’t get a shot.

“Once this issue has been through the entire legal process, if there were ever policies regarding vaccination status which could result in discipline, the implementation of such policies would start from the top of the executive staff down,” the sheriff said.

L.A. city workers face an Oct. 5 deadline to get vaccinated and are negotiating over the mandate’s details. About half of the city’s roughly 57,000 employees are vaccinated and around 6,000 are seeking religious exemptions, according to city officials.

Jackie Fortiér and Jacob Margolis contributed to this report.

What questions do you have about the coronavirus and/or how it’s affecting your life in Southern California?

Corrected September 28, 2021 at 4:44 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Blaine Meek's name and had his title wrong. We regret the errors.